Friday, 12 February 2010

The best thing about 2009 continues to be the best thing about 2010

Everyone has at least a top two newsworthy events of each year. A good second for my 2009 would have to be the death of the fear in Iran; the way in which, via its own cack-handed paranoia, a theocratic regime parted with its credibility for good.

But for me the event of 2009 to be lauded most profusely concerns another Muslim country, Pakistan, and it too involves the global fight of ordinary - largely Muslim - people against the reactionary ideology of Islamism. Its precedence is for two reasons: a) while the protestors in Tehran and other Iranian cities (though having exceeded all expectations in bravery and persistence) have achieved few tangible results against their enemy, the Pakistani military, the US air force and ordinary Pakistani citizens have had extraordinary success against theirs. And b) simply because, as variants of Islamism go, the Pakistanis have the far nastier to deal with.

It has been almost a year since the Swat Valley region in the country's North-West Frontier Province acted as a test tube for yet another doomed experiment of Pakistani compromise with the Tehreek-i-Taleban (Pakistani Taliban). I supported it at the time, like the spineless appeaser I was back then. I and Pakistan soon learnt that to compromise with unadulterated totalitarianism is not only (as I knew) morally questionable but as likely to succeed (as I had yet to appreciate) as a pact with cancer, or hasty negotiations with arsenic as it snakes its way down one's oesophagus. You either fight and overcome it, or die. So just as the Munich Conference of 1938 doesn't exactly ring through history as a proud example of British diplomatic fortitude (and as no-one has ever heard of the Treaty of the Transverse Colon), the Swat deal was an unmitigated failure.

But once the Taliban had conclusively broken that ceasefire (several times actually, including twice in one day on 2nd March), something interesting happened: Pakistan sort of seemed to...well... wake up. By the end of May, the Pakistani Army had taken Mingora, the capital of Swat. The region remains more or less completely within Pakistani sovereignty. Pakistan displayed admirable willingness to abate the hardships of the beleaguered population during this process. John Sweeney's (yes, the guy who flipped off at Scientology) Panorama programme certainly came to this conclusion on the military front, while the cassandraic predictions of a 'Rwanda-like' humanitarian refugee crisis quickly evaporated (according to the UN, 1.3m of 1.9m displaced were returned home by mid-August).

That victory over theocratic fanaticism was soon followed by that in South Waziristan, declared on 12th December 2009. Other significant triumphs have included the killing by US air strikes of two successive Tehreek-i-Taleban leaders, Baitullah and Hakimullah Mehsud, last August and last month respectively. It was good clean fun watching the Talibannies try to deny the former killing ever happened for a number of weeks, only to later admit it and descend into internal factionalism over a successor. A similar coy pattern has emerged in the wake of Hakimullah's glorious martyrdom. While it seems the Pakistanis, for necessity's sake, plan to take a 6 month break from liberating the rest of their country, there is this time no serious talk of grubby compromise deals.

Of course, serious problems remain in Pakistan. The indiscriminate nature of US tactics in the country have kept the fire of anti-Americanism blazing, where in much of the post-Bush world it has tempered somewhat. Civilian deaths are of course sadly inevitable in wars of this type; they can, however, be limited with the will and the technology. It does seem that either US-Pakistani coordination, US aerial precision or both have improved in recent months, a conclusion I draw from the sharp decline in attacks on wedding parties.

Another issue is the question of how much Pakistan - or rather, that grossly swollen military-intelligence complex responsible for the Taliban's very existence - has really changed in attitudes towards its diabolical love-child. There remain influential elements in 'the complex' which retain warm sympathies for these 'good Muslims'. Yet it appears here too there has been some progress; the notorious 'armchair jihadist' General Syed Mohammed Javed, the architect of the failed Swat deal, was removed from his post of Malakand commander last April, for instance.

The last word must concern the most inspiring aspect of this long war for sovereignty and liberty: the role of ordinary people of the NWFP in their struggle against their procrustean oppressors. Numerous tribes across the province have declared war on the Taliban. The most recent example is that covered by Declan Walsh in his Guardian article 'The village that stood up to the Taliban'. (Note that this particular village is outside of the areas so far liberated by the Army) Such actions give the lie to the lazy cultural relativist assumption that Muslim people are somehow 'happy' under Islamist systems.

That particular case is salient not only because it is the most recent one, but also because it concerns something quite unremarkable in itself: the right to play volleyball. For me, this hammers home once again how, in the face of an ideology which seeks to criminalize that which makes us human, the most unremarkable acts become acts of resistance.

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